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The shuttle's long goodbye

AFP - Getty Images file
Atlantis, shown here during a 2006 landing, is due for retirement in 2010.

NASA has set the dates for the space shuttle fleet's final missions, ending with a shipment of spare parts for the space station on May 31, 2010. That schedule isn't set in stone, however – particularly if Congress has anything to do with it.

The space agency wants to get its flights wrapped up by the end of 2010 so that it can turn its attention and its funding more fully to the development of its next-generation Ares rockets and Orion crew vehicle. Even with the shuttle fleet retired, it will take until 2015 or so to get Orion flying, which would represent a giant leap in NASA's renewed push for moon exploration.

Some space pioneers - including the three past and present lawmakers who have flown in space as well as the last man on the moon, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan - say Congress should provide more money to keep the shuttles flying after 2010 if necessary. However, NASA and the White House have resisted extending shuttle operations, saying that would cost too much.

Right now, Congress is concerned with one missing mission in particular: a shuttle flight to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS, to the international space station. AMS would seek out evidence of dark matter, antimatter and other exotic phenomena in Earth orbit. The $1.5 billion, 15,000-pound experiment, backed by a 16-nation collaboration, has been ready to go for years. But it's been bumped from the shuttle flights so that NASA can concentrate on finishing up space station construction.

Last month, the House approved a bill adding $150 million to NASA's budget for an extra shuttle flight to accommodate the spectrometer. A Senate committee approved a bill with different wording, and that means the two versions would eventually have to be reconciled.

NASA doesn't like the idea of being forced to fly an extra mission - particularly if it means keeping the shuttle fleet's huge infrastructure in place. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told Congress that the cost of extending the shuttle contracts could run into billions of dollars.

However, if all the financial details can be worked out, the AMS mission could conceivably lift off sometime after Endeavour's resupply mission winds up in June 2010. Or the shuttle manifest could be rejiggered, just as it was to accommodate October's scheduled Hubble repair mission.

In any case, it wouldn't be surprising if the launch schedule announced this week slipped every once in a while. In fact, when you consider that this actually is rocket science, it would be shocking if the last mission actually took off on May 31, 2010. With that caveat in mind, here's the launch lineup for the last 10 missions:

  • Oct. 8, 2008: STS-125 on Atlantis will be the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, bringing up new observing instruments, batteries, gyroscopes and other equipment that should tide Hubble over until 2013.
  • Nov. 10, 2008: STS-126 on Endeavour is aimed at resupplying the space station and fixing balky joints on the station's solar arrays.
  • Feb. 12, 2009: STS-119 on Discovery will deliver the final pair of U.S. solar arrays to the space station.
  • May 15, 2009: STS-127 on Endeavour will carry up the external experiment platform for Japan's Kibo laboratory, as well as spare parts for the space station. 
  • July 30, 2009: STS-128 on Atlantis will bring a logistics module crammed with experiments and supplies to the station. An experiment on the station's hull will be switched out, and an empty ammonia tank assembly will be returned to Earth.
  • Oct. 15, 2009: STS-129 on Discovery will focus on placing spare components on the station's exterior, including extra gyroscopes, supply tanks, pump modules and robot parts.
  • Dec. 10, 2009: STS-130 on Endeavour will deliver Node 3, the station's last connecting node, as well as a robotic control station and observation post called the Cupola.
  • Feb. 11, 2010: STS-131 on Atlantis will bring up yet another load of experiments in a logistics module. Spacewalkers will attach a spare ammonia tank assembly and bring back a European experiment that was mounted on the outside of the Columbus lab.
  • April 8, 2010: STS-132 on Discovery will bring up a cargo carrier with spare parts and other hardware for the space station. A Russian-built research lab will be attached to the station's Zarya cargo module.
  • May 31, 2010: STS-133 on Endeavour will bring up spare components for storage on the station's exterior, including communication antennas, debris shields, a high pressure gas tank and spare parts for the Dextre robot.

So what happens after the shuttles are retired? The expectation is that they'd be parceled out to space centers and museums around the country. The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum is tops on the list. And you'd think that NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Johnson Space Center in Texas would be in line for the other two flown shuttles. But the picture is actually more complex, and already rife with politics, said Robert Pearlman, editor of the CollectSpace Web portal for space history and memorabilia.

"It's become somewhat of a tug of war," he told me.

The best guess is that the Smithsonian would take Discovery, the oldest shuttle, which flew both of NASA's "Return to Flight" missions. That leaves Endeavour and Atlantis ... and Enterprise, the test shuttle that is currently housed at the Smithsonian but would likely become a hand-me-down item.

According to Pearlman, the places working to snag a shuttle include NASA's Florida and Texas centers as well as:

CollectSpace has a whole discussion forum devoted to shuttle lust. But all the uncertainty could be resolved well before the orbiters are retired. Pearlman noted that the same bill providing funding for the AMS delivery has a clause that would address the shuttles' ultimate fate.

"Within 90 days of that bill's enactment, NASA has to come before Congress with a plan to dispose of the shuttle program's hardware, including the orbiters," he said.

For the precise language, check out Section 612 in the full text of H.R. 6063. For a look at the shuttle fleet's past missions, check out our clickable timeline. And just for fun, feel free to enter your prediction below for when the final shuttle mission will actually take off (date and time).  To make things fair, we'll consider only those guesses submitted before Dec. 31, 2008.

In 2010, we'll be able to look back at this item and find out who came closest to the mark - and I have a feeling we'll be able to scrounge up a nice bit of future shuttle memorabilia for the winner.

Update for 12:40 a.m. ET July 9: A lot of commenters are asking how the space station's supplies and crews will be transported between the shuttle fleet's scheduled retirement in 2010 and the advent of the Orion/Ares system in 2015. That's a big issue for NASA: The plan is to use spaceships from Russia as well as the Europeans and perhaps the Japanese. There's also a program to support the development of private-sector spaceships capable of reaching the station.

The spaceflight gap is discussed in this article from last year, but since then there have been some changes: SpaceX is still on track to build an orbital launch system based on its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, but Rocketplane Kistler had to put its plans for the K-1 rocket on hold, and now Orbital Sciences is getting NASA money to work on its Cygnus/Taurus system. I focused on this private-enterprise angle in a Log posting last month.